Statistics about organ donation just roll off the tongue for Cartersville, Ga., resident Susan Carlisle May.
She can easily recall that someone is added to a transplant list every 10 minutes and that a lack of donors results in thousands of deaths annually in the United States: “But one person donating their organs can save up to seven people’s lives. You can’t do anything with those organs when you have passed away, so give the gift of life because it truly is a gift.”
The award-winning romance novelist and lifelong Baptist knows all this and much more on the subject because her 30-year-old son, Nick May, received a heart transplant shortly before turning 2.
Susan writes about surviving the emotions of that and other life-saving procedures Nick endured before and after the transplant in her new book, Nick’s New Heart: 30 Years and Counting.”
The text narrates the challenges Nick faced from birth — including a surgery at 5 days old to address a missing chamber in his heart and a near-fatal infection and aortic aneurism just before turning 20 — as well as how her Christian faith and fellowship helped her go through the darkest moments with grace.
“My walk with God is closer than what I had before. My faith became stronger because of all this,” she said.
That’s saying a lot given what Nick went through.
Doctors realized when he was born that his heart contained only three chambers, when he should have had four. The first surgery was followed by another at age 3 months, which was followed by six weeks on a respirator in the ICU. Another heart surgery occurred at age 1, followed by the transplant later that year. A heart-related infection almost killed him at age 19, the same year his aorta had to be replaced.
Nick said he became gradually aware of his transplant and other early health challenges by the third or fourth grades: “When I was in gym class, I couldn’t keep up with the other kids playing flag football or just running around the track.”
His parents withheld nothing from him as he began to grow up. “They told me, hey, you had a heart transplant. They didn’t tell me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do; they just said pace yourself and do as much as you can.”
Nick took them at their word. In middle school he made the wrestling team. As an adult he was married in 2014, graduated from college in 2015 and welcomed a baby girl into the family two years ago. “Today I feel great other than the usual aches and pains of having to wake up and go to work and having a 2-year-old daughter,” he said.
Faith has helped, too. “I’m at peace. I’m not afraid to die because I know where I am going and I know who is in control,” he said.
That knowledge, Nick added, was modeled by his mother, who has shared with him and many others how she withstood the trials that threatened his health through the years.
The night before Nick’s first surgery, when he was just days old, Susan recalled praying not only that the procedure be successful, but that she be able to accept the outcome, whatever it was. “Of course I wanted Nick to live,” she said, “but I needed peace and I found it by seeking whatever God’s will was for him and our family.”
Surrender also got her through Nick’s subsequent procedures, including the transplant. “Our only choice has been to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I don’t see how parents with a chronically ill child can survive without their faith.”
Christian fellowship saw her through the dark times, too. Ministers and members of her current church, Tabernacle Baptist in Cartersville, surrounded her during Nick’s surgeries as did pastors and friends from their previous congregation in Rome, Ga.
“Baptists take care of themselves. They take care of their families in times of need. I have an extremely supportive Sunday school class that will take care of you when times are hard,” she said. “And that’s not counting all the family and other friends we have.”
Helping others also provided solace. She threw herself into mentoring the parents of children awaiting transplants. “Just hearing that Nick has lived 30 years brings them some comfort,” she noted.
She speaks to groups, such as high school health classes, about organ donation any chance she gets. But she doesn’t limit those presentations to statistics. Susan also shares about her son, how he is one of the longest-living heart transplant recipients in the country with 30 years.
“I always tell them Nick’s life, and our family’s life, has been good and happy, and that this is a blessing from God because so many people cared,” she said.